SANFORD, Fla. — In an unusually low-key turn to a high-profile case, George Zimmerman was released without incident around midnight Sunday from a Florida county jail on $150,000 bail as he awaits his second-degree murder trial for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin.
The neighborhood watch volunteer was wearing a brown jacket and blue jeans and carrying a paper bag. He walked out following another man and didn’t look over at photographers gathered outside. He then followed the man into a white BMW vehicle and drove away.
Moments before, two Seminole County sheriff’s vehicles blocked access to the intake building parking lot where Zimmerman was being released. Zimmerman emerged after two public information officers confirmed the credentials of the photographers outside.
No questions were shouted at Zimmerman, and he gave no statement.
His ultimate destination is being kept secret for his safety and it could be outside Florida.
As with the July 2011 release of Casey Anthony, the Florida woman acquitted of murder in the death of her daughter, Zimmerman was released around midnight. But the similarities end there. Anthony was quickly whisked away by deputy sheriffs armed with semi-automatic rifles as angry protesters jeered her. While news helicopters briefly tracked her SUV through Orlando before she slipped from public view, there was no such pursuit of Zimmerman, who will have to return for trial.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester said at a hearing Friday that Zimmerman cannot have any guns and must observe a 7 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew. Zimmerman also surrendered his passport.
Zimmerman had to put up 10 percent, or $15,000, to make bail. His father had indicated he might take out a second mortgage.
Zimmerman worked at a mortgage risk-management company at the time of the shooting and his wife is in nursing school. A website was set up to collect donations for Zimmerman’s defense fund. It is unclear how much has been raised.
Bail is not unheard of in second-degree murder cases, and legal experts had predicted it would be granted for Zimmerman because of his ties to the community, because he turned himself in after he was charged last week, and because he has never been convicted of a serious crime.
Prosecutors had asked for $1 million bail, citing two previous scrapes Zimmerman had with the law, neither of which resulted in charges. In 2005, he had to take anger management courses after he was accused of attacking an undercover officer who was trying to arrest Zimmerman’s friend. In another incident, a girlfriend accused him of attacking her.
Zimmerman, 28, fatally shot Martin, 17, Feb. 26 inside the gated community where Zimmerman lived during an altercation. Martin was unarmed and was walking back to the home of his father’s fiancée when Zimmerman saw him, called 911 and began following him. A fight broke out — investigators say it is unknown who started it.
Zimmerman says Martin, who was visiting from Miami, attacked him. Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which gives broad legal protection to anyone who says they used deadly force because they feared death or great bodily harm.
Zimmerman was not charged for over six weeks, sparking national protests led by Martin’s parents, civil rights groups and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Martin was black; Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is from Peru.
Earlier Sunday, Zimmerman’s attorney was working to secure the money for bail and a safe place for Zimmerman to stay. But residents in Sanford, where Martin was killed, didn’t expect a ruckus once Zimmerman was released.
City commissioners said they hadn’t received calls from nervous residents. Protesters didn’t show up outside the jail. And talk at one local coffee shop seldom focused on the case.
“It’s just kind of a non-issue now,” said Michele Church, a server at Mel’s Family Diner. “That’s pretty much all anybody in Sanford wanted, was an arrest, so it could be sorted out in the court system.”
On Friday, a Florida judge agreed to let Zimmerman out on $150,000 bail. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara has said there are several options for where Zimmerman should go, but would not disclose any of them. Lester on Friday indicated Zimmerman would be allowed to leave the state if arrangements with law enforcement could be made for him to be monitored. He will be fitted with an electronic device.
About a half-dozen photographers and cameramen camped outside the Sanford jail Sunday, focused on the door marked “Bonds Rooms,” where other people who had been arrested and released on bail exited. Zimmerman had entered the jail about a week earlier after more than a month of nationwide protests calling for his arrest.
“The mood in Sanford has calmed down tremendously,” said Sanford Commissioner Patty Mahany, whose district includes the neighborhood where Martin was killed. “I think now that people are able to see the justice system taking place, even though they understand it’s going to be quite slow, people are willing to just remain calm and really we’re all getting back to our daily routines.”
A spokeswoman for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office declined to release any information about whether they were increasing patrols or security.
Defense attorneys for other high-profile clients who awaited trial on bail have said Zimmerman should leave Florida and refrain from going out in public. Sanford residents say they aren’t expecting to see him around the neighborhood anytime soon.
“They’ve already said they’re going to move him to a safe place,” Church said. “Everyone has calmed down. That’s all anyone in Sanford wanted, an arrest.”
Meanwhile, Martin’s parents published a “Card of Thanks” in The Miami Herald obituary page Sunday. The note says Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin express their appreciation for all the public’s support since their son’s death. The notice includes a photograph of Trayvon Martin dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, similar to one he was wearing the evening he was killed.
“Words will never express how your love, support and prayers lifted our spirits and continue to give us the strength to march on,” the letter says.